VICTORIA – If there is one thing British Columbia has lots of, it’s nature. It is little wonder that as a testament to the province’s natural beauty that car licence plates are proudly emblazoned with the catchy moniker “Beautiful British Columbia.” Just shy of a million square kilometers, British Columbia is truly vast, but Vancouver Island offers a great and accessible foray into the region and the south of the island with Victoria as its gateway is a perfect way to start.
The capital of British Columbia, Victoria has a decidedly English feel. Elegant colonial buildings, leafy roads, and manicured parks all help to put the ‘British’ into British Columbia. Despite being a cosmopolitan and at times bohemian urban centre, there’s plenty of fauna and flora brimming at the edges. A good place to start is the spectacular Inner Harbour in front of the imposing and regal Empress Hotel.
Locals certainly value the rich biodiversity that inhabits their island waters but are rather blasé about seeing whales. After all, when you have around 14,000 bobbing around the North Pacific waters, they are something of a fixture. But coming from the rolling south downs of Sussex, I was pretty thrilled at the chance to see a few marine giants.
The harbour has numerous organised tours on offer, but I chose Prince of Whales Whale Watching. Catchy name aside, the ticket office and pick up point is located right next to the tourist information office which makes it ideal if you are in downtown Victoria. Just make sure to be there 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
They offer a variety of tours throughout the year and for the truly adventurous the small open air 12 passenger Zodiac boats zip in and out at great speed. But if you are prone to sea sickness and don’t fancy bouncing on the crest of the waves or donning a full waterproof safety suit, then larger vessels are also available. I opted for the Ocean Magic II, which proved to be a comfortable and exhilarating ride.
The departure out of the harbour is a truly stunning start to the adventure. After about 15 minutes of navigating the gentle waters you are out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Prince of Whales promises that if you don’t see a whale you can go on another tour free of charge. The number of whales in the waters is certainly on their side, but all the tours operate a whale spotting network so all the vessels are in on the act.
Despite having grown up with lots of BBC nature programs, nothing quite matches the sheer thrill of seeing a humpback whale breaching the surface of the sea. The tours are strictly monitored to make sure they don’t get too close, for the wellbeing of the whales, but at about 100 meters, it is close enough to appreciate the majesty of these wild giants of the deep.
Humpbacks are the largest whale to frequent Vancouver Island waters. Over the course of the warmer months, they spend most of their time feeding on tiny crustaceans which consist mostly of krill but also plankton and small fish. After somepretty extensive dining in the rich coastal waters they then spend the winter months heading off to Hawaii with a few veering to Mexico where they breed and rest.
All in all, I managed to see eight humpback whales, though I didn’t get to see any killer whales, gray or minke whales; but I certainly didn’t feel disappointed. After a good hour of whale watching the Ocean Magic II hugged in close to the coast passing by Race Rocks and the resident seals and sea lions were happily basking in the sun. At CAD 130 a person from March to November, it is value for money for an informative and incredibly well organised chance to experience Vancouver Island’s marine wildlife.
text James Tulley